WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack Obama said the U.S. has a "very good estimate" of when Iran could complete work on a nuclear weapon, but cautioned Monday that there are still many unanswered questions about Tehran's inner workings.
"Do we know all of the dynamics inside of Iran? Absolutely not," Obama said. "Iran itself is a lot more divided now than it was. Knowing who is making decisions at any given time inside of Iran is tough."
Obama said that while he believes the standoff with Iran over its nuclear program can still be resolved through diplomacy, the U.S. has done extensive planning on a range of options.
"We are prepared to exercise these options should they arise," Obama said during an interview with NBC that aired on the "Today" show.
Iran insists its nuclear pursuits are for peaceful civilian purposes, not a bomb.
Obama’s comments come as his administration is pushing a number of new sanctions against Iran. The sanctions show the “administration’s resolve to hold the Iranian regime accountable for its failure to meet its international obligations. Iran now faces an unprecedented level of pressure due to intensified sanctions applied by the United States and complementary actions by many others around the world,” the Treasury Department said in a statement.
The sanctions “reemphasizes this Administration’s message to the Government of Iran – it will face ever-increasing economic and diplomatic pressure until it addresses the international community’s well-founded and well-documented concerns regarding the nature of its nuclear program,” the statement said.
Tensions in the Middle East and elsewhere are increasing over the prospect that Israel, a key U.S. ally, could soon launch a unilateral strike against Iran. Fearing that such a step could trigger a broader war and disrupt the international economy, the U.S. and other western nations are scrambling to try to persuade Israel against a strike.
On Sunday, Obama said the U.S. was working in "lockstep" with Israel and did not believe Israel has decided whether to attack Iran, and said he hopes the standoff can be resolved diplomatically.
Iran's regime says it wants to extinguish the Jewish state, and the West accuses it of assembling the material and know-how to build a nuclear bomb. Just last week, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta would not dispute a report that he believes Israel may attack Iran this spring in an attempt to set back its nuclear program.
"I will say that we have closer military and intelligence consultation between our two countries than we've ever had," Obama said, adding, "We are going to be sure that we work in lockstep as we proceed to try to solve this — hopefully diplomatically."
The United States is leading that persuasion initiative, even though Washington largely has concluded that outside argument will have little effect on Israeli decision-making.
"Any kind of additional military activity inside the Gulf is disruptive and has a big effect on us," Obama said. "It could have a big effect on oil prices. We've still got troops in Afghanistan, which borders Iran."
As for the danger of retaliation by Iran against the United States, Obama said, "We don't see any evidence that they have those intentions or capabilities right now."